Drought conditions across several key growing regions in the United States are intensifying concerns about water supply for food production now and in the future. An Ames-based startup believes that an ancient grain crop can be part of the solution, and that Iowa is the perfect place for their growing business.
Dryland Genetics was formed in 2014 by a father and son team of plant geneticists to develop higher-yielding varieties of proso millet. Proso millet has been grown in China for more than 10,000 years and is currently grown in the High Plains region of the U.S., where its ability to thrive under dry conditions is an advantage. However, a lack of research and investment in the crop has limited its yield potential and acreage, with only 600,000 acres grown in the United States today, primarily in northeastern Colorado and western Nebraska (compared to nearly 90 million U.S. acres of corn and 88 million acres of soybeans in 2022).
Dr. James Schnable, co-founder and chief technology officer of Dryland Genetics and the Gardner Professor of maize quantitative genetics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, became interested in millet after it was part of a “forgotten” experiment. It was one of a number of crops that had been planted, but not watered for over a month. Only the proso millet survived, and even flowered and produced grain.
“James and I spent the following Christmas break doing research and putting together a business plan based on using modern plant breeding practices to improve the yield potential of proso millet,” said Dr. Patrick Schnable, co-founder and CEO of Dryland Genetics, and a distinguished professor and director of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University.
Funding spurs research, market growth
Based on the initial business plan, Dryland Genetics received funding from Ames Seed Capital Fund along with sidecar investments from several of the fund’s individual investors. Their first hire was Dr. Santosh Rajput as the company’s lead breeder, who began to gather germplasm from around the world and apply modern plant breeding techniques to the crop. The result was increasing yields by 10 to 40 percent over the varieties that farmers had been planting.
“Once we proved we could increase yields for farmers, we began looking at how we build the business, which include hiring people to organize production of seed, seed sales, and helping build demand for increased production of proso millet grain,” said Patrick Schnable.
The company is based in the ISU Research Park near the Iowa State University campus, with all of its plant breeding work and about half of seed production taking place in Iowa. The remaining seed production and field testing happens in Colorado and Nebraska, and they work with a network of contract seed growers, as well as universities and contractors to test varieties under field conditions.
Dryland Genetics launched full-scale commercial sales of its improved millet varieties in 2022, with about 30,000 acres planted. They are working to increase sales and build demand for the crop in the traditional production region of Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, as well as expand to other areas. Dr. Schnable noted that farmers who already plant wheat have the equipment they need to raise millet, and agronomic practices are already established. At this point, there are no serious pests or diseases that impact the crop.
The crop’s ability to yield well with limited water compared to other grains provides a sustainability advantage not only in raising the crop, but as a feed source to chickens, pigs and beef, said Dr. Schnable. Feeding trial research has shown that feeding millet instead of corn in poultry and pig diets results in equivalent weight gains.
Proso millet is about twice as efficient with water compared to other grains. To a consumer, this means that an egg from laying hens fed millet instead of corn is produced with 10 to 20 gallons less water. The same is true for a 4 ounce pork chop from a pig that was fed proso millet.
Iowa startup ecosystem supports growth
Dr. Schnable said the growing startup ecosystem in central Iowa has helped with the company’s growth. In addition to specialized facilities at the ISU Research Park, there is a strong network of legal, accounting, and other professionals who understand both agriculture and the needs of entrepreneurs.
“The enthusiasm for entrepreneurship in central Iowa is impressive,” he said. “People are willing to share their experiences and connections to help everyone grow and be more successful.”
In 2021, the company announced $3.8 million in venture financing as part of a round led by Next Level Ventures of Des Moines and Stine Seed Farm of Adel, with additional investment from the company’s existing investors.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it also definitely takes a village to make a startup successful,” he said. “There are so many people who contributed and many key moments where someone made a connection or provided a suggestion that helped us get to the next milestone.”
Published September 2022.